Rontarus Washington Jr. appeared in court with one of his new Innocence Project defense attorneys Tuesday afternoon, and two others appeared via Zoom.
Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria approved motions for three attorneys to represent Washington: Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, who was in court with Washington Tuesday; Melanie Morgan, of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Morgan Pilate LLC; and Joshua Dubin, of Dubin Research & Consulting, an innocence ambassador adviser-attorney and justice advocate for the Innocence Project.
Meanwhile, the Franklin County attorney says he will not prosecute the defense’s alternative suspect in an alleged sex crime attempt from March 2017.
Retrial could hold until 2022
Washington, now 24, was charged in 2015 in connection with the death of a woman who lived down the hall from him. The case first went to trial in September 2019, the jury hung and a retrial has been pending since, as Washington’s previous legal team held evidentiary hearings on numerous motions.
The status of those motions — which included a motion to dismiss the case (plus a supplement to that motion), a motion in limine and a motion to admit prior bad acts of the defense’s alternative suspect — was not entirely clear Tuesday. Some other motions have been filed under seal in the meantime. The judge has not made a public ruling on the pending motions. The Times is attempting to clarify their status as the discussion of retrial dates has continued with no mention of the motions.
The case was first set for a retrial in February 2020; that was continued so both sides could seek further DNA testing, and the trial was reset for September 2020, but jury trials had not yet resumed after going on hold for the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden — who entered his appearance in the case last month — asked the judge to keep a late-September 2021 jury trial date on the docket.
Dubin said he wasn’t sure it was practical for the new defense team to get up to speed on the six-plus-yearlong case and history in order to be prepared for September, though he said he thought November or December might be possible.
However, McCabria said he expected it to be a three-week-long trial — the first trial ended up lasting four weeks — because of the numbers of witnesses and experts he anticipated would testify, and he wouldn’t want to set that around the holidays. It could be January 2022 or beyond before the case goes back to trial.
As of Tuesday afternoon, though, the September jury trial remained on the docket. The next hearing is a status conference set for 1:30 p.m. Friday, June 4. Dubin said he hoped at that point to have a better time estimate for new experts to review evidence in the case and prepare reports. Another status conference is set to follow at 2 p.m. Friday, July 16.
In addition, the case has sort of split into two parts: as the Times has reported, prosecutors filed a motion to hold Washington’s previous attorneys, Adam Hall and Angela Keck, in civil contempt. They withdrew from the case last month. That motion was filed under seal and the details of it have not been discussed in open court, but that part of the case is set for a status conference at 11 a.m. June 25, and an evidentiary hearing to start at 9 a.m. July 6.
Washington was in custody of the Douglas County Jail for more than five years until he was released on electronic monitoring with a $500,000 surety bond following a community fundraising effort. The judge has since modified the bond to own-recognizance.
Alternative suspect won’t be charged in alleged sex crime
As the Times reported in March, the defense’s alternative suspect, Felipe Cantu Ruiz — who was married to 19-year-old Justina Altamirano Mosso when she was found slain on the floor of the bathroom in the apartment the two had shared — had been accused of attempted sexual assault in March 2017.
The defense had long suggested Cantu as a possible alternative perpetrator based on Cantu’s own testimony about his unhealthy relationship with Altamirano, some physical evidence at the scene and previous, documented domestic incidents between the couple, among other things.
Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez wrote in an email to McCabria in March that she had just learned of the report. A woman reportedly told Lawrence police that Cantu had attempted to sexually assault her on March 20, 2017, while he was drunk at her home. The woman said she made some noise to wake her husband, and she was injured in the middle of a scuffle that ensued. Officers were unable to locate Cantu, according to the police report.
Valdez said she was asking an outside county attorney or district attorney’s office to review the report for charging consideration.
Franklin County Attorney Brandon Jones told the Times Tuesday that he was declining to prosecute the case.
“Based upon the reports and evidence submitted to me for review, I do not feel that there is enough evidence that a crime was committed,” Jones said via email. “There is not enough evidence to support a conviction by a reasonable doubt burden of proof standard. I have sent a Decline Letter to the DA’s office to be forwarded to the Lawrence Police Department.”
During Washington’s September 2019 trial, a detective testified that cellphone tower records showed that Cantu’s phone was en route to Manhattan, Kansas, at the time investigators said they believed Altamirano was killed on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014, though the coroner testified that he was not able to determine her time of death. Cantu had also sent a photo of himself in the bathroom of a rest stop near Paxico to a friend via Facebook messenger, but the detective said the original photo was not recovered from the phone. In her closing arguments, the prosecutor said the evidence from Cantu’s phone and the testimony of a Manhattan man who saw Cantu later that night proved that he could not have been the killer.
Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.